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For more information or to become a Court Appointed Special Advocate, visit www.casaofcentraloregon.org. The next training begins in September.

Emmy Guthrie, a Court Appointed Special Advocate, beamed with happiness during a recent legal hearing of a teen she’d advocated for over the past 13 months.

The 17-year-old girl who had previously struggled with substance abuse, had run-ins with the law and suffered trauma stemming from a broken home had again shown her dedication to turning a new page.

The girl’s progress is exemplary, Guthrie said.

The teen was taken out of her parents’ home and placed with a foster family in another part of the state. The former Deschutes County resident informed the court she had begun volunteering with her high school’s peer-mentoring and special-education programs and just locked down her first part-time job at a doughnut shop.

The Deschutes County Circuit Court echoed of stifled sobs, but these were the ones that come from hearing good news.

Judge Stephen Forte commended the minor on assuming a leadership role at her school and for her commitment to sobriety. He asked about the desserts at her new job.

“How do they compare with Voodoo Donuts?” the judge asked, inspiring giggles in the courtroom.

“I don’t know, your honor,” she said via conference call, explaining she hadn’t tried them yet, but that her employer’s confections were rumored to be pretty good.

Guthrie, thrilled with the girl’s progress, said, “She’s going beyond what her parents were able to do for her. Cases like these are so rare.”

The 62-year-old, recently retired from a career in the forest products industry, is one of Central Oregon’s 109 Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), each of whom typically guides children — usually two to three — through the child welfare system from start to finish.

“These kids have done nothing wrong. They are so purely the victims of circumstance,” said Guthrie, who has been an advocate for nearly two years and whose husband has since begun volunteering as well. She manages three cases — children, whose ages can range from under 1 to 18 — each of which requires 10 to 15 hours each month.

In Deschutes, Crook and Jefferson counties, there are more than 2,000 reports of suspected child abuse or neglect each year. Along with that has been an increase in children entering foster care, according to CASA.

So far this year in Central Oregon, there have been 424 children placed in foster care for at least one day due to alleged abuse or neglect, and 305 have been assigned a CASA advocate, according to the nonprofit. Those numbers stand to eclipse those of last year, in which 529 children were in foster care and 382 were assigned a CASA advocate. The number of children in foster care has risen since 2014.

“Our numbers are skyrocketing,” said Jenna App, CASA of Central Oregon’s executive director. She attributes a variety of factors to the growth, including parents’ substance abuse, stressors caused by poverty, such as scarce affordable housing, and mental health services she considers insufficient.

“I think there is just a lag time in services,” she said. “As (our region’s population) grows, the services to help at-risk parents aren’t yet as robust as they need to be.”

Guthrie became aware of the importance of social services when she volunteered at a shelter for women and children in Boise, Idaho, where she previously lived.

“These children don’t need to be victims if they can get the support they need,” she said.

In Deschutes County, 23 CASA trainees are undergoing 50 hours of preservice instruction. After passing a background check and approval by a judge, they will be sworn as officers of the court. These volunteers come from all walks of life.

Several CASA volunteers “have a connection to children and children’s issues,” said App, adding that many are recently retired teachers, parents, medical professionals and police officers. “Their life experience has in some way shown them that it is very difficult to be a vulnerable child in our society. Maybe they realized this from their own experience when they were a child. Or maybe when they were raising their children there (was a child in a negative situation) four blocks down and they didn’t know what to do about it.”

CASA was founded nationally in 1977. In 2005, the CASA of Deschutes County — which operated since 1992 — expanded to include Crook and Jefferson counties to form CASA of Central Oregon. Child advocates fill a gap the Oregon Department of Human Services cannot, said Patrick Carey, the DHS district manager for programs in Crook, Deschutes and Jefferson counties.

Currently operating at 82 percent of its ideal budget, DHS experiences a high caseworker turnover, due to oppressive caseloads, Carey said. CASA advocates, having stood with the minor since he or she entered the child welfare system, can inform the new DHS caseworker of important developments and complicated backstories. Together, the DHS caseworker, the CASA advocate and the attorneys of both the child and the parent work together to promote the best course forward. The child advocate’s role is to make sure the child has a voice in what’s happening.

“Typically I think the cases work better when there is tons of communication,” Carey said. “We all look at different areas of a case. As we … formulate everyone’s opinion … (we’re better) able to walk with one voice.”

After the hearing, Guthrie introduced herself to a DHS worker who had recently been assigned to the female minor’s case.

While the minor’s future looks promising, Guthrie said she will still have to make a lot of important decisions — chief among them, when she turns 18, whether to join the state’s Independent Living Program. Doing so would afford her financial assistance with living expenses and college tuition, along with life-skills instruction until she’s 21.

“We encourage kids not to leave the system when they’re 18,” said Leslie Fritch, the associate director of CASA in Central Oregon who also voluntarily handles one case, mentioning how vulnerable at-risk teens can be when they strike out on their own.

Fritch said unlike criminal court, which can be contentious and adversarial, dependency court has a different feel.

“Everyone involved wants the kid to be safe and to have the family reunited,” Fritch said. “We see it as an intervention to protect the child while we get the parents the services (they need so they can again) parent the child.”

Parents’ substance abuse is the No. 1 reason for child abuse and neglect and the prime catalyst for kids to enter the child dependency system.

“The judge gives the parents a lot of time to make those big (life) changes,” Fritch said. “Two years in an adult’s life is not much, but in a kid’s life, that’s a long time. They’re moving through their childhoods.”

Guthrie, who makes the drive to the Deschutes County Courthouse several times a week from her Redmond home, has a holistic, long-term take on child welfare.

“These children are going to be adults eventually. For our society to benefit, we have to care for our children,” Guthrie said. “Anything we can do to help vulnerable children is worth the time commitment.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7816, pmadsen@bendbulletin.com

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